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book review

Kevin Lambert adapts the work of Jean Genet to the climes of a Quebec logging community.Gregory Augendre-Cambron/Handout

  • Title: Querelle of Roberval
  • Author: Kevin Lambert
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: Biblioasis
  • Pages: 200

If the title of Kevin Lambert’s Querelle of Roberval rings any bells, it should. It’s a direct homage to Jean Genet and his 1947 novel, Querelle of Brest – a work perhaps best known in the non-Francophone world for a 1982 Rainer Werner Fassbinder film adaptation starring Brad Davis.

The Montreal writer takes the tribute further, too: Shifting the scene from a port city in Brittany to a logging town in northern Quebec, reimagining the original’s vision but respecting his essence, he shows himself a worthy heir to Genet’s project of giving the public morality of the day a thoroughly subversive seeing-to.

Roberval – in Lambert’s words, “a dirty little muddle of bungalows and two-story commercial units that gnaw away at a portion of the Lac Saint-Jean shoreline”– has drawn underemployed twentysomething Querelle from Montreal with the prospect of employment in the town sawmill, but he soon finds himself a central participant in a bitter strike. To the locals he is a charismatic, if unsettling, big-city transplant; sophisticated, albeit in ways they can’t quite fully grasp; and matter-of-factly gay in a setting where such things still can’t be spoken of openly.

In Roberval, though, Querelle has found his niche, a place where he can apply his rare combination of physical and interpersonal skills to seeming perfection. By day he is a valued co-worker and fearless comrade in the labour struggle. By night – and let’s be honest, at scattered moments in the daytime, too – he exploits his sexual prowess by satisfying the taboo urges of the town’s middle-class sons.

As if to separate the committed readers from the merely curious, Lambert opens the novel with some especially explicit gay sex tableaux. (Not for nothing did this book’s original French-language edition win the Marquis de Sade Prize.) A few pages in, though, the main narrative begins with a scene where picketing strikers suddenly become violently ill. Their coffee has been laced with bleach, and it is assumed a higher-up in the mill’s management is responsible.

Poisoned coffee, it turns out, is just a warm-up. This strike, in Lambert’s telling, is no mere dispute over wages and work conditions; it’s a battle for the soul of Roberval, indeed for the town’s very existence as a working community as opposed to just a quaint backdrop for the incoming waves of lakefront-property hogging gentrifiers. In a place where class divisions couldn’t be more stark and the moneyed have the clear upper hand, strong measures are called for.

Querelle himself doesn’t dominate the novel to the degree that might be implied by the title; this is a cross-sectional portrait of a place, with multiple characters given their turn as the focus, all of them limned with equal care. While readers’ favourites will vary, few will forget the unnamed and barely socialized trio of midteen boys – a rough antecedent might be the avenging Moroccan beach kids of Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer – who show themselves quite happy to carry out strike-related dirty work to help finance their shared crack addiction.

But Querelle is the indispensable element, the point at which all strands of Lambert’s rich plot intersect.

With two very different worlds on a collision course and loose cannon Querelle in the middle, the tension ratchets up to a scarcely bearable point. Here is where Lambert fully earns the company of his invoked forebears – Genet the teller of inconvenient truths, and the ancient Greeks, in whose work tragedy unfolds with the inexorability of a change in the seasons.

Lambert’s prose, seamlessly rendered in English by Donald Winkler, meets all the demands of an ambitiously structured work. His default mode is a spare voice describing extreme things with a reined-in economy. But there are other feathers in his bow. With equal facility he can go full-on granular – a detailed description of the logs-to-lumber process should be dull but somehow isn’t at all – or big-picture poetic, taking off on flights of numinous lyricism.

At one point, zooming out from what has been a scene of extreme violence, he writes that, in the sky above Roberval, “the enormous cumulus clouds are like castles in the air, great citadels, shifting structures whose architecture is boundless, capricious, mysterious, run through with hidden rooms and secret passages.”

Gather a few of those adjectives, you can’t help thinking, and you’d have a handy capsule review of Querelle of Roberval.

Ian McGillis is an arts critic, writer and editor living in Montreal.

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